As Mitchell Pearce saddles up for his latest chance at Origin redemption PAUL KENT reveals why the Knights skipper returns to the New South Wales side a changed man.
Debate has been fierce since news broke Thursday that the Old Nathan Cleary will replace the New Mitchell Pearce as halfback for NSW when teams are picked on Sunday.
It is less to do with personality and style than it is to do with circumstance.
Pearce was once Cleary.
He was a young halfback emerging at a time of intense frustration for the Blues. Queensland had won the series in 2006-07 and were chasing what would have made a record-equalling third straight series win.
This was at a time when three in a row constituted something worse than a slump. Back then you could have got long odds that the Maroons would go on to win 11 of 12.
While this was happening the Blues were rotating through cast of halfbacks. Pick and flick.
Finally a meeting was convened and it was decided that the Blues should pick the best young halfback in the competition and stick with him no matter how many losses it takes before he emerges as the next great halfback and leads NSW to many victories.
Oh it was beautiful in its simplicity.
Instead Pearce found an unforgiving public.
NSW lost in his first series and his second and again in his third and by then he almost single-handedly wore the brunt of a State’s frustration as coaches shuffled through talent but retained Pearce as halfback.
It didn’t matter he was by far the best halfback NSW could offer.
Now, more than a decade later, those with only a brief interest in the game can see that almost identical words have been uttered of late about Cleary.
Stick with him, he’ll come good. Ignore that game, look at this, consider that, his future is still ahead of him.
It is clear Cleary is being picked on potential more than performance and that there are at least several better performing halfbacks in the NRL that the Blues could call on.
It is this stubborn insistence that puts the young Nathan Cleary in danger of being turned into the new Mitchell Pearce, the subject of ridicule for the detractors. Already there are pockets of frustration that the Blues are persisting with Cleary, and the Pearce combination has added weight to it.
Thankfully, a different Mitchell Pearce has emerged in Newcastle. A different, authentic version.
Pearce is the dominant halfback in the NRL, playing with a grace and timing few can match.
And so down 1-0 in the series, with no more second chances, the Blues are looking for him to rescue them from series defeat.
It has the potential for one of the best redemption stories in Australian sport, of which several are being written now.
Steve Smith and Dave Warner are coming back from a year in exile to be the dominant batsmen in Australia’s World Cup campaign in England.
Israel Folau is no doubt working on his, although where it ends nobody knows.
And even across the field in Origin Daly Cherry-Evans has not only returned from Origin exile but is now one game away from captaining Queensland to a series victory.
Pearce’s selection tomorrow would be the first step towards his professional redemption, a journey that would be capped if he could lead the Blues from 1-0 down to a series victory.
It is one that began with his personal redemption several years ago.
Every redemption story needs a starting point. Like most, Pearce began his unexpectedly. A drunken night out, a secret phone recording and headlines that bled black.
He left Australia for a rehabilitation centre in Thailand and there it began.
It had less to do with alcohol and everything to do his view of himself.
Pearce played his first NRL game at 17 and was immediately popular with his teammates. He was talented and quick with a laugh, the easy to please kid eager always willing for a night out with teammates.
His problem was he always remained the 17-year-old at the Roosters, even when he was 26.
Pearce’s views changed in Thailand.
He realised life was about leaving a legacy, solid and tangible, more than it was about living in the moment.
For some men it is as simple as leaving a good solid family with unbreakable values. Other men want to build empires.
The desire to leave a legacy, to be a positive change in the world, was how good men lived.
The 17-year-old Pearce died a quick and final death in Thailand.
He finally understood it was him who he needed to change.
It was not always easy and there has been the odd step backwards. And it was not until he left the Sydney Roosters to join Newcastle that he was able to properly feel comfortable.
He arrived at the Knights fully formed. A 28-year-old man ready to take the leadership, which is how all the great leaders get it. It can never truly be given.
Pearce felt instantly comfortable at his new club.
They looked at him with the same eyes he once wore for Anthony Minichiello and Craig Fitzgibbon and Braith Anasta, the big names at the club when he was 17-years-old and full of large dreams.
Coach Nathan Brown made Pearce his captain. At the same time he finished the job by giving Pearce full control of the team. Not simply a side of the field to play, half of a halves pairing, and not simply the captaincy next to his name, but the whole show.
Pearce runs the team, as he will do against Melbourne Saturday afternoon.
He is so relaxed his instinct has returned and now, combined with a broad base of knowledge that only 30-year-old playmakers can possess, they combine to make him the dominant playmaker in the NRL.
He is a different halfback to the one that last played for the Blues.
Now he returns, to his own beat, singing a redemption song.